A shared love of history

Lucie 001                                david[1]

I spent this past weekend remembering with affection and a sense of loss the contribution of two historians, Lucie Halberstam and David Colquhoun.  They both died recently.  On Saturday there was a requiem mass in St Mary of the Angels in Wellington to celebrate the life of Lucie, and on Sunday there was a celebratory afternoon tea at David’s house in Carterton.  The contrasts in the occasions pointed to two very different lives and attitudes.  Lucie’s friends were offered the full Catholic ritual, a fine eulogy from Greg Coyle and the consolation of receiving the blood and body of Jesus Christ in mass and the assurance that Lucie was on her journey to meet her maker.  David’s friends were offered a welcoming cup of tea or glass of wine, informal conversation about David in front of a stunning  slide show of images from his life.  Guests were invited to choose a book from his library to take home.  Each was in mint condition and included on the inside cover  David’s distinctive book mark.

They were indeed very different types of historian from very different backgrounds.   Lucie was 87. According to Greg Coyle, she was born in Czechoslovakia in 1931 to German-speaking parents, her father a Jew and her mother a Catholic. In 1941 as the holocaust intensified in Czechoslovakia, the family decided that suicide was the only solution.  Lucie’s mother went to the Catholic priest to receive forgiveness for their intended action.  He told her to wait and that he would contact the Cardinal.  Soon after they received permission to leave, and eventually made their way to Wellington.  Arriving here the Halberstams built a house in Karori.  Lucie had a small divan bed in her own room.  She would sleep in that same bed, in the same house for some 78 years!

According to David Grant who has written an excellent obituary of David Colquhoun, David was born in Wellington to a dentist father who was an anti-fluoridation campaigner and once member of the Communist Party who became an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War. David grew up in Auckland and went to Lynfield College where he started a blues magazine. David moved house, and beds many times! David was only 66 when he died.

Their very different backgrounds produced quite different historical interests.  Lucie remained a Catholic all her life, an enthusiast for classical music and at university under the influence of Peter Munz she became interested in medieval Europe.  When I was a first year student at Victoria University Lucie was our major lecturer on medieval Europe. I will never forget her explanation of the feudal system when she stated that a vassal would go to a lord and say, ‘I want to be your man’. She looked mystified when her student audience, all well schooled in the lyrics or the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, burst into laughter. But don’t get me wrong – her lectures were models of clarity and based on exhaustive reading.  She had a huge knowledge of medieval Europe and her judgements were always deeply considered  – she would often answer a query with ‘yes… and no’. I think it was probably insecurity, certainly not her intellectual acuity, which meant that to my knowledge she never published. Later when I joined the History Department at Victoria I came to appreciate her very great kindness and her devilish sense of humour which was always delivered with a twinkle in the eye. She had a passion for gardening which I always enjoyed.

David by contrast  retained the left-wing sympathies of his origins, and his passion was not medieval Europe but the history of New Zealand.  He became an archivist and eventually became the Curator of Manuscripts and Archives at the Alexander Turnbull Library.  His energy and broad sympathy for all types of history meant that he did that job superbly.  He also researched and published New Zealand history  where I constantly found that his interests and my own often came together.  With a thesis on the writer and judge, Frederick Maning, he was always interested in Pākeha views of Māori, and I discovered that he shared my interest in James Cowan.  Through obtaining the letters of the Prince of Wales to his lover for the Turnbull he became fascinated by the Prince’s 1920 Royal Tour, another interest which I shared.  He was always an enthusiast sports fan, an acute observer of test cricket from the bank at the Basin Reserve or of the deficiencies of the Phoenix at the cake tin.  So he edited Jack Lovelock’s journals and was in the process of writing a biography of the multi-talented George Smith, champion jockey, athlete, All Black and Rugby league professional.

So how different could these two people, both sorely missed, have been?  Yet they shared two characteristics.  Both had an unbridled passion for the past – the histories they treasured were very different – Charlemagne’s Europe and George Smith’s New Zealand had little in common.  Yet both people were committed to evoking those times and places.  Second both believed in the importance of getting things right.  Lucie was scrupulous in her tiny, almost illegible writing, in correcting every error in your student essays.  She would never rush to bold but unsubstantiated conclusions.  David too was an impeccable respecter of the evidence.  He contributed to Te Ara a wonderfully-written and comprehensive history of Athletics.  When we checked it, we discovered couple of very minor errors – a date was slightly wrong, a time one second out.  When  I sent the corrections to David, there was no making of excuses or wounded pride as with so many authors.  Instead he congratulated the checker and was delighted that we had made the entry even more accurate and reliable than before.  Like Lucie, David had a huge respect for the truth.

Lucie and David, different as you were, thank you for enriching the world of history in this part of the globe.

Where History Matters

King Billy mural

This mural of King Billy (William of Orange) is to be found on a wall in Belfast, northern Ireland. It is one of many hundreds of such murals in Belfast, all referring to historical events (this one of Protestant William’s victory over the forces of the Catholic James at the Battle of Boyne in 1690). Nor is this the only form of evidence of history to be seen as you wander the streets of this handsome city.  There are statues and war memorials, there are historic plaques on houses,  there are large metal signposts which tell the story of particular streets, and there are many museums – the Ulster museum with a gripping exhibition about ‘The Troubles’, a Titanic museum which presents the story of building that fateful ship, a Somme museum in honour of the 36th (Ulster) Division from the Great War.

There are so many signs of history because in Northern Ireland the contested identities of its people are forged through history. The Protestant community expresses itself through marches on 12 July (the anniversary of the Battle of Boyne) and by remembrance events on 1 July (the day the 36th Division suffered grievance losses on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916).  The Catholic community remembers  the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916 which sparked the Irish rebellion from British authority, and it recalls the events of ‘The Troubles’ such as ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry on 30 January 1972 when 28 civilians were shot during a march protesting Catholic internment.

How does this centrality of history alter the task of the historian?  This was the question that I pondered repeatedly during a fascinating conference on public history at Queen’s University in Belfast last week. The conference marked the opening of a new Centre for Public History at the university. I had been invited to speak about public history in New Zealand.  But I increasingly wondered whether the New Zealand situation had any lessons at all for public historians in Northern Ireland. For many people in New Zealand history is not  the centre of group identity.  Most Pākehā find their national identity in other ways.  We think about our landscape and the image of ‘beautiful New Zealand’, we think of our sporting successes (many of them in the past, I grant) but very much expressed through the continuing triumphs of our rugby players and yachtsman.  We pride ourselves on our wines, and our film-makers.  Far from history defining us, we often point to our freedom from tradition and our willingness to think afresh as a social laboratory.  The only part of New Zealand society where history is hugely defining is the Māori community where ancestors and inherited memories of war and suffering are central to tribal and ethnic identity.

In the New Zealand case therefore, unless you are primarily a Māori historian, the role of the public historian is to awaken people to their history; to capture people’s imaginations with dramatic stories of our past; and to show how much history has indeed shaped us.  We must become cheer-leaders for history and use all our communication techniques and methods – from creative writing, to films, to gripping exhibitions, to interesting websites and well-interpreted historical places.  We have to go out and win an audience for history.

In Northern Ireland, I began to realise, the challenge is very different.  You need to confront people’s entrenched beliefs about history and gently shake them up.  This is not always well-received.  A young scholar at the conference, Jason Bourke, had been investigating the history of a war memorial in East Belfast.  The memorial was widely considered in the community to express the sacrifice of the Protestant young men in the Great War especially through service in the 36th (Ulster) Division.  But Jason discovered by looking at the names on the memorial that the story was more complex.  Several of the men honoured turned out to be Catholics who had served with the Irish 16th Division from the south.  His discoveries were not well received. One day a local shouted across the road , ‘We are not up for your revisionism’. In such a situation the challenge of the public historian is not to awaken interest in history but to find ways of gently asking new questions and delivering new truths.  Jason himself used highly creative techniques.  He held a kind of ‘Antiques Roadshow’ where he invited people to bring along heirlooms from the Great War which he would help interpret.  The discoveries were then posted on a website and used in an exhibition at the local museum.

For other historians in this situation the task must simply be to tell the truth in as accurate and clear way as possible.  The conference was in honour of a very great Queen’s historian, Keith Jeffery, who died in 2015.  Keith wrote a magnificent book on Ireland and the First World War.  There, among other contributions,  he documented the very large numbers (over 40,000) of Catholic Irish from the South who had fought in the war, a contribution which had been repressed for identity reasons in both the independent south and the Protestant north.

But it is not easy disturbing ideas when identity has been forged through the past.  Another paper I enjoyed came from Jessica Moody who told about the extent to which the stately homes of Britain and Ireland had been built upon the profits made through slavery – either through the slave trade or through wealth accumulated in West Indian possessions.  One country house features a stairwell where the handrails are held up by carved representations of slaves.  The trouble is that those who visit country houses tend to go because they want their sense of the glorious British heritage reinforced.  They are not interested in having their illusions shattered, or be made to feel uncomfortable.

In the end I began slowly to realise that my learnings as a public historian in New Zealand were in fact of more relevance in Belfast than I suspected.  Whether it is awakening an ignorant community with little interest in the past to the relevance of history (as in New Zealand) or whether it is finding ways to present new thoughts and insights to a community for whom history forges identity, the historian must still develop techniques of creative communication.  The tools of the public historian – engaging writing, interactive websites, dramatic television films or plays, stirring exhibitions – they must be used in both communities.  In the end history does matter, whether in New Zealand or Northern Ireland, and encouraging people to think about the past in accurate and new ways is a crucial obligation.


Recent mural in Belfast

He Tohu – a personal view

Six weeks ago, on 19 May, the new exhibition displaying the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Waitangi, and the Women’s Suffrage petition was opened on the ground floor of the National Library.  Elizabeth Cox invited me to review the exhibition for her  blog Bay Heritage Consultants. She has kindly agreed for me to also post it on this blog.

Last month saw the opening of He Tohu, the new long-term exhibition in the National Library, displaying and interpreting three key documents of New Zealand – the 1835 Declaration of Independence, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition.

A couple of weeks later once the crowds had died down, I paid a visit. I confess that I came a bit grumpy. All three are documents about governance which properly belong at Archives New Zealand, and I share the view of those who think that displaying them in the National Library will only harm people’s understanding of the role of Archives. I had also long believed that the huge empty space on the ground floor of the National Library following its rebuild was an unnecessary luxury. Putting this exhibition there seemed, perhaps, a way of covering up what was close to a national scandal.


But I swallowed my grumbles, and began by getting the thrill of meeting the real documents themselves. It was a rewarding and uplifting choice. The room in which they are housed is a magnificent space – a large waka huia carved in delicate curves of polished West Coast rimu. The moment you enter you feel you are in a sacred site, a treasure house, which is both warm and enclosing, yet with a sense of dignity and antiquity. The lighting is floor-lit and dim, and to look at the documents themselves you need to press a button which illuminates each. This gives you a sense of a personal interaction. The treaty or the declaration are showing themselves off just to you. In all, a stunning beginning. I was cheered enormously.

Around this diamond-shaped centre are five smaller ‘rooms’- an introduction of moving images, an interactive map to which I will return and three areas committed to the interpretation of the three key documents. The aim is to communicate to a younger audience, an admirable intent. One wonders if that was entirely fulfilled by the somewhat lengthy panels of text; but it is hard to avoid this if you want to tell with any accuracy the story of why these documents were drawn up in the first place. On the whole the accounts are accurate and reasonably clear. I would have liked a little more about the tribal affiliations and motivations of those signing the Declaration of Independence, but most of the essential background is there presented in simple direct prose.


In each room there are four excellent interactive experiences which serve two purposes – they attract younger users with buttons to push or screens to touch. And they allow a layering of the information, so that those who have a particular query or are interested in the detail can keep pushing. In each room the first interactive is a large screen featuring faces. Some are historians, some are public figures, some are relatives of those who signed. When you push the relevant button, these people make short, lively and highly pertinent comments. They help to turn dusty documents of history into words which have an on-going and personal meaning. A second interactive in each room offers a menu of topics about the background of each document. All introduce the ‘cast of characters’ who played an important role in the creation of each document. The answers are again largely accurate and enriched with good images. Third there is an interactive where you can explore particular names of those who signed, or follow hikoi which link the names around particular themes. For example in the treaty room this interactive allows you to learn how Lieutenant-Governor Hobson’s illness affected the places that the treaty was taken for signing; another looks at the place of animals in the treaty story.

I did find this interactive a little hard to navigate and I suspect that there is much enlightening information hidden in places that the user will rarely visit. Finally there is also in each room an interactive aimed at younger visitors, which explores the act of signing itself. In the declaration space you can try a quill pen; in the treaty space you can rub a seal; but what exactly you are meant to do with the animal glue in the petition room is not obvious.    But most of these devices are clever, and combine a lightness of touch (literally) with a depth of information.


There is also the fifth room positioned between the treaty and petition spaces which features a large interactive map of New Zealand. The user can explore topics covering all three of the documents. Under a heading ‘a Māori land’ you can watch, for example, the arrivals of the great waka, the migration of iwi around New Zealand, the major pre-European trade routes. Moving to the treaty, there is a wonderful sequence showing, as the days tick over after 6 February 1840, the voyages of the different treaty sheets; or you can watch horrified as progressively with the years ticking by Māori land becomes European land. Similarly the section on women’s suffrage shows the numbers signing the petitions in each of the provinces. The map is large, the graphics are very clear, and the timing is spot-on. This really is a great learning device which could be used for many other topics besides the three documents presented here. Lets hope it graduates to the web.

So there is much to admire in the new exhibition, and I have no doubt that for younger visitors it will turn potentially boring subjects into fascinating ones. This achievement makes all the more disappointing that there remain considerable areas of sloppiness and unprofessionalism in the exhibition. There are various factual internal inconsistencies – in one place we are told there were 25,519 signatures on the suffrage petition, in the accompanying broadsheet the figure is 25,520 and in a third text the figures is ‘about 24,000’. There are also inconsistencies of grammar (such as lower case and upper case) and a couple of misspellings. I found it annoying that some images were out of chronology with the text. For example in a panel on the Declaration of Independence is an image of Te Heuheu’s pa at Taupō, but Te Heuheu, indeed no-one from that part of the country, signed the declaration. Some images such as the rolling suite at the entrance are not captioned at all. Too often there is a vagueness about dates where they might have been accurate – we are told that ‘The first parliamentary elections in New Zealand were in the 1850s’. Why not say ‘the first parliamentary election was in 1853’? And while it is admirable that the big screens of talking heads are supported both by sign language and te reo Māori versions, elsewhere the two language policy is chaotic. Sometimes an English text is translated into Māori; sometimes it is not. Occasionally a Māori text, such as a biography of Hone Heke, is not translated. In places where the full text is available in both languages, the captions to the images are only in English. One longs for a consistent policy – all texts should be available in both langauges. So much money has gone into this exhibition, you are tempted to ask why the whole exhibition did not get a thoroughly detailed edit before going into expensive production.

But don’t let the petty grumbles of a scholarly pedant put you off. In general visting He Tohu is a hugely enjoyable experience, which will both inform you and entertain you. The larger interpretations are sound to my mind. And the real impact of the exhibition is to elevate these three sets of documents into national taonga which we must treasure and continue to explore. This is especially important for the women’s suffrage petition and the Declaration of Independence which previously were very much hidden by the shadow of the treaty.


In the United States it is said that every American needs to visit the National Archives in Washington and see their three key documents – the Declaration of Indpendence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The promoters of He Tohu have a similar message for New Zealanders. Few Kiwis will be disappointed if they follow that suggestion.

Thanks so much to Jock for contributing this assessment of the exhibition.  For the purposes of full disclosure, my partner is an architect who helped design the room containing the original documents, but that didn’t influence Jock’s review.  Elizabeth Cox

Text copyright: Jock Phillips / Images copyright: Elizabeth Cox

The laconic historian


I cannot remember exactly when I first met Ken Inglis, and that is perhaps characteristic of the man.  Despite his towering 6 feet 5 inches frame, he never announced himself with a sense of pompous self-importance.  I am sure that he introduced himself, and I am certain that our conversation began with Ken asking the questions.  For despite his huge significance in Australian historiography, Ken Inglis was always a quiet modest man who seemed more interested in helping you to discover the truth than proclaiming his ideas.

I think our meeting must have come at some conference in the 1980s. At the time I was just discovering, to my surprise, that the study of New Zealand war memorials could be a serious and intriguing subject.  Ken was further along the same path with respect to the Australian variety.  Before long we were heads down exchanging excited ideas about inscriptions or styles or sculptors. We quickly decided to work together on a statistical study of memorials in the two countries and I copied his survey to put together a similar database for New Zealand. We eventually published a statistical comparison which was far more revealing than we had dared hope.  Soon after Ken arranged for me to present information on New Zealand war memorials at a memorable conference which he had organized with Annette Becker at Les Invalides in Paris; and subsequently he read the drafts of my writings on memorials providing sage and always supportive advice. He came and stayed in Wellington to witness Anzac Day in New Zealand and together we journeyed through the bottom of the North Island looking at memorials. So like many others I became deeply fond of Ken and his lively wife, Amirah.

It may be that it was Ken’s generosity of spirit for many many historians in this part of the world which in part explains why 150 people turned up to a conference in Melbourne last week to consider Ken Inglis’ life and work. It is of course an unusual occurrence for a conference to devote itself, not to a large theme, but to the work of one living historian.  Earlier this year there was an occasion, reportedly much-enjoyed, to celebrate the contribution of Barbara Brookes and to mark the publication of her landmark history of New Zealand womennz-women-001 But that gathering focused on a theme of ‘making women visible’ and so papers were not confined to Barbara’s own work. However last week’s conference spent the first day on Ken’s life, and the second on his work. Ken himself was sitting throughout in the front row of the audience. It had taken some convincing to persuade this notoriously modest man to allow the occasion to proceed; and typically his response to the papers was never to critique the speakers’ views but to supplement them with telling and amusing memories.

What drew the audience was not simply the man’s support for others.  His own historiographical contribution is huge.  After an MA thesis which became a book on the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and then a PhD thesis which also became a book on religion and the working class in Victorian England, he found the theme which was to shape in large part his intellectual life, ‘The Anzac tradition’.  At a time in the early 1960s when no other historians in this part of the world took the experience of Gallipoli and the Great War seriously, Inglis made it central to Australian identity.  The insight took him in a number of directions – he accompanied the diggers who returned to Anzac Cove on the fiftieth anniversary in 1965 and wrote powerfully about that strange journey.  He was the first academic historian to admit C E W Bean to the profession and wrote a book about the man.  Then seeking to explore the origins of the Anzac mythology he published a brilliant study of the development of social rituals and traditions among the Australian colonists.  It was this publications which first roused my interest in his work.  He followed this line through to his mammoth and deeply satisfying book, Sacred Places on Australian war memorials.

sacred-places-001Sacred Places won many prizes in Australia and received international recognition. His approach is never that of the jingoistic nationalist. What distinguishes his treatment is partly his sense that Anzac became a civic religion, an insight which grew out of his work on Victorian religion and his own time in the YMCA. But even more there is his own humanity.  When I first became interested in war memorials, my basic assumpotion was that memorials were primarily Imperialist propaganda.  They served to legitimise wars and provide a heroic example for young men to follow in the footseps of their predecessors by enlisting in future imperial adventures.  Ken had no time for such crude reductionism.  As Jay Winter pointed out at the conference, despite his thesis in Victorian social history, Ken did not accept the Marxist interpretations of historians like E P Thompson.  Rather he looked at war memorials in terms of their meaning to many thousands of women, children, siblings and parents, who lost young men at the front and really wanted a surrogate tomb to help them cope with the pain and loss. It was the meaning of memorials for the emotional lives of ordinary Australians which captured his imagination

That Ken Inglis was always motivated by this sense of the need to respect and empathise with powerful human emotions came through strongly at the conference. I learned that in his time at the University of Adelaide when he was a young lecturer, he had become involved in the case of an Aboriginal youth, Max Stuart, who, on the basis of a forced confession, was convicted and sentenced to be hanged.  Inglis campaigned and wrote a book, The Stuart Case, which argued that whether or not Stuart had committed the crime there was no evidence apart from the confession to establish his guilt.  Stuart was eventually saved from the gallows.  Later in he second half of the 1960s Ken and Amirah went off to Port Moresby where he was the inaugural professor of history at the University of Papa New Guinea and where he eventually became Vice-chancellor. There he worked hard to establish viable learning traditions in a developing conflicted third world environment. Today he is still involved in writing about a story of human injustice in a projected book about the expulsion of Jewish refugees from Churchill’s Britain to Australia in the early 1940s.

The other element of Ken’s contribution which echoed through the conference was his commitment to making his history meaningful for people out of doors as well as in academic halls.  From his early days as a lecturer he had been an active journalist who wrote a fortnightly column for The Nation.  It was clear that this experience helped shape his writing style and encouraged him to always conceive of his audience as that mythical type, ‘the general reader’.  The result was that thousands of Australians did indeed read his books. Later his interest in the media and intelligent communication to a broad audience was reflected in his two volume history of the ABC.

Yet one should not get this wrong.  Ken Inglis was not just a populariser.  He always engaged with tough theoretical issues and was a highly creative member of the profession.  Several contributors at the conference noted in particular his brilliant suggestion of the ‘slice’ method to underpin the 1988 bicentennial historical project.  The results were a series of brilliant jointly-authored volumes which explored Australian society and culture in 1838, 1888 and 1938.  Instead of simply honouring the bicentennial with boring surveys he was able to stimulate a new way of unpacking the past.

I am extraordinarily grateful to those fellow historians, Bill Gammage, Jay Winter, Seumas Spark and Rae Frances, who conceived of this conference while Ken was still there to hear it and engage with the contributions.  It was indeed a privilege to share in the assessment and appreciation of a great southern hemisphere historian.




Tell me more: Oral history and New Zealand history





I have just returned from the biennial conference of NOHANZ, New Zealand’s oral history association.  It was an immensely stimulating gathering of some 50 people (over 80% female), and featured some fascinating presentations. Because we were meeting in Christchurch the earthquake figured large with some powerful oral histories – Anna Cottrell showed her video of children’s voices, Paul Millar talked of the hugely impressive work of CEISMIC with their ‘Quakebox’, and we heard about the project to record the voices of women affected by the quake.

Other highpoints for me included:

  • Ngāi Tahu’s work to record the memories of their kaumatua and kuia,
  • Anna Green’s challenging and original project, ‘The Missing Link’, to uncover inter-generational family memory,
  • Grace Bateman’s stories of people living with ME.
  • A fascinating project, Mrs Schumaker’s Gems, by Helen Frizzell, Megan Hutching, Judith Fyfe and Pip Oldham. Using the books in which New Zealand women wrote down recipes, they drew out their memories of domestic life in the 40s and 50s.
  • Several oral history collections of immigrant experiences – from Auckland Chinese to recent Christchurch Irish.

Yet one big question remained with me.  Why was there only one academic historian at the hui; and why had oral history not made more of an impact on the discipline of history?  The conference was partly focused on the 30th anniversary of NOHANZ, so the occasion was used to invite Claudia Orange, Hugo Manson and myself as ‘founders’ to reflect on the past 30 years. In my paper I recalled my own enthusiasm for oral history in the 1980s.  I had seen the impact that oral history hade made on Māori history with Michael King’s biography of Te Puea, Judith Binney’s work on Rua and Ngā Morehu, not to mention James Cowan’s extensive use of interviews in the 1920s for his volumes on the New Zealand Wars.  Since Māori carried so much of their history in spoken memories, I expected it to become the major source of iwi history.  But as much Pākehā historical writing changed from high politics to social history, the history of women and the family, popular culture, and the history of working people – all summed up in the expression ‘history from below’ – then it seemed inevitable that oral history, rather than documents, would become a major source and working tool for historians.

Did that happen?  To answer that question I analysed the New Zealand Journal of History and looked at two aspects over three time periods: just before NOHANZ was founded (1981-85), ten years after its founding (1996-2000), and the past five years (2011-15).  The first aspect was the articles in the journal.  This was what I found:


In sum the number of articles which included references to oral history sources had only increased by under 3% over those thirty years.  To be fair some of the articles using oral sources did so more extensively than previously.  In the early 1980s of the four articles with reference to interviews, three of the four had only four or five references.  But the more recent articles did include several which drew extensively on such sources most notably Melissa Matutina Williams writing about the Māori migration from Pangaru, and pieces on the 1951 lock-out and one on the take-up of the contraceptive pill.

The second aspect was the books reviewed. I divided my findings into those which used some oral history and those which were substantially based on such sources.  Here are the results:


Are the results impressive? Certainly one in five of the books with some oral history is a big improvement on the under one in twelve in the early 1980s; and by 2011-15 there were some books which were primarily oral history and were regarded as sufficiently important to be reviewed in the journal.  They included for example Alison Parr’s interviews about the home front in World War 2; and a reissue of Alistair Thomson’s classic Anzac MemoriesBut in my view the growth is still not especially convincing, despite the fact that indeed the focus of much history has moved into the 20th century and away from political history into social and cultural history.  It is interesting that in reviewing a work of recent history, Changing times: New Zealand Since 1945 Katie Pickles noted, ‘Despite the intention to “tell the story using the experiences and views of New Zealanders themselves” where possible, this is not a book to draw heavily upon oral histories.’

Why is oral history still a minority pursuit among historians? It may be that the academic history represented in the journal is the wrong focus, and that far more oral history is to be found in family history, local community history and sporting history, areas not often reviewed in the journal.  Or is it that academic historians are by nature introverts, who feel far more comfortable sitting at their computers scanning Papers Past, than doing the hard work of social engagement and preparation required in gathering oral interviews.

Whatever the explanation it was disappointing to me to see so few academic historians at the gathering.  I looked back with some nostalgia to the six months I spent at the University of Sussex as far back as 1985 when the history department, hugely influenced by History Workshop history made oral history projects the very centre of their work.  Don’t get me wrong. Memories can be very faulty and spoken history must always be set beside the documentary source.  But spoken words are an invaluable way into the past.  Oral history is an essential tool for any professional historian. Its time that NOHANZ conferences are not a sub-culture of devotees talking to each other, but become a gathering for any New Zealand historian who takes him or herself seriously.


Wanted: More Dead Kiwis

vol 1 vol 2 vol 3 vol 4 vol 5 ????????????

Do not be too outraged by the title.  I would hate to encourage any of my fellow countrymen to depart this mortal coil.  But I would like to see more lives of New Zealanders, now dead, recorded in our Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB).

What inspires this blog is that I recently returned from a fascinating conference on national biographies hosted by the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) in Canberra.  There were many challenging issues discussed:

  • How to increase the representation of women and indigenous people in national biographical dictionaries; and at the opening of the conference Judge Michael Kirby made a passionate plea for better representation of gay and trans-gender people.  Where such people were already in dictionaries, he suggested, their gay credentials should be openly discussed, not politely hidden.
  • How often essays should be revised as new perspectives emerge and new evidence is uncovered.
  • How to exploit the digital revolution by ensuring that web-based biographies are richly linked to other databases and information such as the marvellous Australian resource Trove.
  • How far national dictionaries should primarily record notable people, and how far little known but ‘representative’ people should find a place.  Do we need mothers, owners of corner dairies, alpaca farmers in our dictionaries?
  • How to compete with Wikipedia given that the popular use of Wikipedia biographies is far greater than those in dictionaries of national biography despite the fact that they are hugely inferior in quality and accuracy.  Some suggested that the only response was to load all the ‘official’ biographies onto Wikipedia.
  • How to incorporate social media into biographical sites.
  • How to fund these works of reference and scholarship.  Some such as the UK’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) and the American National Biography have placed their works behind a paywall.  Others such as the ADB remain committed to free and open access.
  • How to use the rich data in such dictionaries to generate broader conclusions about society and culture.
  • How in preparing biographies does one deal with family sensitivities?  Melanie Nolan, General Editor of the ADB, came up with the concept of ‘compassionate truth’.
  • How to define ‘national’ in a dictionary of ‘national biography’.  Is it confined to those born in the country, or those who lived for long periods in the country, or simply people who had a substantial impact on the country though they may have spent little time there?  James Cook, despite spending only about a year in New Zealand, appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.  Germaine Greer will find a place in the Australian one, despite having lived all her adult life in the UK, and she will also have a place in the UK dictionary. Sir David Cannadine, General Editor of the ODNB, suggested that it was time to go beyond national borders and develop projects of world biography, and Barry Jones gave an engaging discussion on how he went about doing his own version of such a world dictionary.

What emerged powerfully for me from the discussion was that the creation of a national biography remains a very live issue.  At least within the Anglophone world there is an ongoing process of writing new biographies and an exciting investigation of new ways of publishing and promoting biographies — everywhere in the Anglophone world that is except in New Zealand.  We heard about developments in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, the United States.  In every case these counties already had major dictionaries of national biography; but they all realised that the task does not stop.  Important people continue to die and it is crucial that their lives are presented in a scholarly way.  The DNZB had a huge reputation among the practitioners of the biographical art at this conference; and they were enthusiastic about the path-breaking experiment of including biographies within a national digital encyclopedia as we have done with Te Ara.  But they were staggered and appalled that there was no on-going preparation of new biographies.  I felt deeply ashamed.

The DNZB at present covers comprehensively those significant dead New Zealanders who flourished up to 1960.  The last volume published in 2000 included about 600 Kiwis who flourished in the years 1940-1960.  The project was suspended in 2000 because at that stage there were not enough significant people who had died and who had flourished in the next 20 years 1960-1980.  But now in 2016 we are as long from 1980 as those preparing the previous volume were from 1960.  To retain the scale of the previous volumes, work should begin on another 600 biographies for the 1960s and 1970s.  So far all that has been done is 15 biographies of the most notable figures, and this work stopped in 2012. Think of some of the notable New Zealanders who are now dead but lack comprehensive accounts of their contribution. Just in the cultural sector alone there are Michael King, Ralph Hotere, Billie T. James, Judith Binney, and Bill Oliver, the original editor of the DNZB.  In the United Kingdom and Australia they have now changed the basis of selection from period of flourishing to date of death.  The DNB is just completing biographies of those who died in 2012. The Australian project is writing biographies of those who died in the 1990s.  It is surely time that we looked at these models and followed suit.

National encyclopedias and national dictionaries of biography are not once-only projects, that can be left to wither and die.  They are national taonga, like a national museum, a national library or a national census.  They provide essential information for a civilised society.  They have their value precisely because they are kept up to date and include the biographies of all significant New Zealanders, not just those who lived before 1960.

I hope when the next such international conference on biographies is held (and there were already plans for this), the unfortunate New Zealander who attends does not have to hang his or her head in shame.


New Zealand history moves south

IMG_5724a Anzac parade comprseed

Dunedin Railway Station and Anzac Park

If you want to get an ego boost as a historian, then go south – or at least as far as Dunedin. It may be unfair to say that the past becomes important to a community when the great days are over, and the present is more challenging.  But, whether for this reason or not, Dunedin really is making the most of its proud 19th century heritage, and can realistically claim to be the new centre of New Zealand history whatever level of history interests you.

IMG_5727aPasschendaele plaque

Passchendaele plaque


Dunedin cenotaph (detail)

IMG_5715a first church window detail

First Church window (detail)

This was brought home to me when I spent a few days in the southern capital last month.  I had gone there to take part in a conference on war memorials – a conference on war memorials? you ask. Surely you couldn’t get two people to pay money for such an experience elsewhere in the country.  Well, there are a few fanatics like myself who are well and truly infected by the war memorial bug and get excessively decided about discovering new stone edifices. A few of such sufferers of the malady came from around the country; but what struck me was the  number of locals who were there because they love the physical evidence of history.  They turned up in numbers to hear the Australian visiting speaker, Joy Damousi; and they joined us on a walking tour of some of Dunedin’s memorials. We first discovered a memorial on a bridge over Anzac Avenue obviously added surreptiously which read, ‘ This plaque was originally planned to extravagantly praise Dunedin, but now I want to remember the Maori passive resisters, abducted from Parihaka, shipped to Dunedin, held without trial, imprisoned, they were used as slaves to builds the sea walls of this harbour’. Chastened by this honest account of history, we walked along ‘Anzac Avenue’ and saw a plaque in Dunedin’s magnificent railway station to rail employees who had died in the Great War and another which once rode on the Passchendaele train, we looked at William Gummer‘s soaring cenotaph in Queen’s Gardens, and we visited First Church where we were shown a fine stained glass window to the fallen.  It was a pity we did not have time to make a call at the Southern Oval where Carlo Bergamini’s handsome memorial to those who died in South Africa could be seen.  On a similar tour in May I had led a whole bus-load of Dunedin war memorial fanatics to see it. Where else would you fill a bus for such a purpose?

Between sessions at the conference I went wandering and simply could not escape history at every turn.  I visited the huge newly-refashioned Toitū, Otago Settlers Museum, where the history of Otago is told with superb objects.  I spent hours in their exhibition about Dunedin’s Great War – hours, not only because the exhibition is stacked with revealing objects and stories, but also because I wanted to catch as much as possible of the video about the Otago boys at war.  It lasts about five hours in itself and tells the story of the Otago Battalion in extraordinary detail.  What other community would dare undertake such a lavish production?

Then I wandered up to the northern cemetery.  Entering the Sexton’s cottage I met the impressive Ann Barsby, who is the moving force behind the Southern Heritage Trust.  Set up in 2002 the trust advocates for the conservation of heritage buildings and places.  It also organises a host of events such as a recent Halloween party at the Gasworks Museum.  The trust has established a website about the northern cemetery and published a series of guides to the cemetery.  I took the opportunity to pick up one of these guides on the ‘Gentlemen of Fortune’ trail.  This led me with fascinating biographical information past the graves of such Dunedin entrepreneurs as William Larnach (merchant baron of ‘castle’ fame), Charles Begg (seller of musical instruments), the Burt brothers (of plumbing supplies) and so on.

Dunedin’s claim to heritage capital does not rest only on these thriving examples of public history. It is also, unquestionably, now the powerhouse of academic history.  The university is home to about a dozen outstanding historians of New Zealand.  They include:

Out of this clustering of talent has emerged significant institutions.  They include the hugely impressive Caversham project which spawned a series of significant publications about urban society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries;  and a Centre for Research on Colonial Culture which has sponsored a series of imaginative and pioneering conferences.  The academic output is also supported by a lively university press.

Perhaps the best expression of the reality that New Zealand history has moved south is the fact that editorship of the New Zealand Journal of History has now migrated from Auckland to Dunedin.

So whether you get your kicks from enjoying built heritage or old objects, or whether what thrills you is the cut-and-thrust of historiographical debate, then Dunedin in 2015 is the place to be.